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'Dark matter' DNA breakthrough could boost drug research

'Dark matter' DNA breakthrough could boost drug research

Posting in Cancer

A breakthrough in our understanding of 99% of our DNA could lead to new drugs and broadens our understanding of the cause of diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis.

When we think of DNA, we think of our genes.

But new research shows we should also look at the 99% of our DNA that isn't genes. Once called "junk DNA" (which was a terrible name considering that we had not proved it didn't have a purpose; we just didn't know what the purpose was), this so-called dark matter DNA turns out to be hugely important.

A federal undertaking involving 440 scientists from 32 laboratories from around the world determined that it plays "a critical role in determining how cells, organs and other tissues behave," The New York Times reports. The analysis of this gargantuan project required the equivalent of more than three centuries of computer time.

The results, published last week in almost 40 articles in publications such as Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology, show that much of this dark matter DNA contains gene switches that:

  • control which genes are active in a cell and when
  • determine whether a cell becomes a neuron or a liver cell
  • affect a whole host of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease and more

“Most of the changes that affect disease don’t lie in the genes themselves; they lie in the switches,” Michael Snyder, a Stanford University researcher for the project, called Encode, for Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, told The Times.

Applications

The results of this study will greatly impact our health and business, since these gene switches appear to influence so many diseases.

The news could drive drug research and help us understand the environmental influence of disease risk and even explain why one twin gets a disease while the other doesn't.

“These papers are very significant,” said Dr. Mark A. Rubin, a prostate cancer genomics researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Rubin, who was not part of the Encode project, added, “They will definitely have an impact on our medical research on cancer.”

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure